life in a tiny apartment.

December 9, 2015

christmas decorations | reading my tea leaves

Tip #136: Size your traditions to fit your space.

I’ve written before about my philosophy on holiday decorating: Simple and spare and requiring only a shoe box’s worth of space in the closet for storage in the off-season.

For the past eight years—in apartments both spacious and tiny—James and I have supplemented our strings of lights and few ornaments, with bits of botanical and otherwise earth-friendly things. Some years that’s been tiny pinecones, or wintry wreaths, or branches lugged across a snowy college campus. This year, James and I bought a small Christmas tree and a fresh pine garland from the stand down the street. And of course, we’ve made room for a tiny advent calendar. But we started a new tradition, too. 
christmas decorations | reading my tea leavesAs a child, holiday decorating in my family included receiving a new ornament each year on Christmas Eve. My mom would give one to each of my sisters and me and they’d be a variation on the same theme: angels with four different musical instruments, birds of four kinds, jolly elves in four different colored scarves.

My collection still spends most of the year in the attic at my mom and dad’s house. (This time of year they’re usually still decking the tree at their house.) And until recently there was also a very large and increasingly cloudy collection of snow globes, given to me by family and friends, year after year at Christmastime. 

The ornaments I’ll bring into my own home someday, no doubt. After some amount of consternation, the snow globes were sold at a tag sale. The thing about holiday traditions is that sometimes they include an array of stuff that doesn’t pass the test of time (or space). As an adult, I admit to preferring the simplicity of a tree draped, foremost, with lights. But I also don’t have a space for keeping Tupperware bins of decorations that come out but once a year. So without being ungrateful for the years my mom spent picking out the perfect ornaments for me and my sisters, I’ve been thinking of a way to borrow from the family decorating tradition that relies a little less on adding to an ever-growing pile of things to store, but that still feels festive. Dare I say, magical.

And so, Christmas candles! The stuff of illustrated Christmas cards and picture books, I longed for a candle-lit tree as a child. The advent of electrical string lights was surely an improvement for fire-safety and ease of decorating, but the nod to an old-timey tradition, and the few minutes it takes to make them as a family still seems benign decorations | reading my tea leavesWe’ve rolled tiny beeswax candles to fit into a set of vintage German candle holders that I found last year. Combined with a few strings of lights more compatible with life in the 21st century, the unlit candles and twinkly lights set a scene that’s sufficiently merry (and especially bright) for December nights. We might eventually add a garland of popcorn and cranberries to the tree. When we go to my parents’ house for the weekend, I can imagine returning home with clippings of berries and twigs to add a bit of color. But for now there’s a nightly lighting and abundant ooing from the smallest member of our tribe.
If we’re very careful to trim our wicks and place our candles strategically, were hoping to burn our candles on Christmas Eve (or, in years when we’re traveling, on some other festive night). Tiny as they are, and of the homespun rolled variety, the burning will likely be a short-lived affair. (Perhaps the better, so as not to burn down the place to the ground.) But whether we’re brave enough to set the candles ablaze, the candle making itself could still be something special to do year in and year out. I’m hoping it’s a tradition that won’t get too tiresome for everyone involved, and that won’t require too much in the way of resources of space or time or money. At the very least it’s something that I’ll get a personal thrill out of it, and, well, good enough for me. christmas decorations | reading my tea leavesWhat about you guys? New December traditions? Old ones? In case anyone doubted, it’s a favorite topic ’round these parts. I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to in your spaces small or large.

PS. If you’re wanting to roll your own candles for tiny christmas holders or menorahs, I followed these basic instructions (but instead of making two candles per sheet of beeswax, I folded the sheet into eight sections; if a birthday-size candle is what you’re after, I’d double that number still again.)

PPS. If you’re on the hunt for vintage clips of your own, Etsy sellers have them by the dozen.

Tiny apartment survival tips # 1 – 135, RIGHT HERE

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  • Reply Kai December 9, 2015 at 11:04 am

    Our son will be 2 on the 27th of December. Because of him, I thought, we need some Christmas traditions. I’m not at all a decorater-type, I don’t do big Christmas dinners eighter. Oh, and our apartment is small. But it is not full of things or furniture. SO there’s enough space for a full sized tree. And that’s what it’s going to be! 🙂
    We’ll decorate the Christmas tree with just two strands of electrical lights, that we already have.
    And I’ll bake some Christmassy cakes. No big dinners. Just regular meals.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 11:08 am

      Christmassy cakes! So intrigued!

  • Reply lindsay December 9, 2015 at 11:05 am

    as a firefighter’s daughter, this post has made me incredibly anxious!
    but anyhow. my husband and i are also small-brooklyn-apartment dwellers, so decorations are minimal. we do get a christmas tree, though. our ornaments are a hodge-podge of those i’ve bought and ones that each of our mothers collected throughout our childhood (including a crayon-colored paper ornament with my husband’s name on the back, in little-kid handwriting. oh. my. word.) when we first combined our ornament collections, we were especially excited to see that we have matching “born in 1987” rocking horses, one in pink and one in blue. our tree is certainly not minimal or stylish, but i love how it’s a living scrapbook of our lives.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 11:08 am

      A living scrapbook—such a lovely sentiment!

  • Reply Linda December 9, 2015 at 11:17 am

    Our tree is a living scrapbook as well – there are very few ornaments, if any, that don’t bring back a memory of a person, a trip or a creative endeavor. I love putting out the the ornaments… This year we will add a wedding memory or two. : )

  • Reply Liz December 9, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Oh, and I should say, I started a new tradition of Christmas chocolate babkas. I made them as gifts last year, and everyone loved them so much that I’m taking them to every holiday gathering I attend this year and onward. (Recipe on smitten kitchen is excellent, if anyone is looking)

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 11:39 am

      Yum! (Tree well-watered!)

    • Reply Jessica December 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

      I made the babka from Smitten Kitchen last year for Christmas morning and it was such a hit it has been requested for every Christmas from now until eternity, with the only suggestion being “more chocolate please!” 🙂

  • Reply Jessica December 9, 2015 at 11:57 am

    Our tree is a mixture of mine and my husband’s childhood ornaments and hand me downs of my mother in law’s vintage ornaments and I love it. My daughter is 2.5 and she gets a new ornament each year (this year was the first she actually picked for herself and she was SO proud). I love to decorate with stray cuttings from the tree farm and other things that aren’t so much Christmassy as they are Wintery because I like to leave them up throughout the winter. Living in Vermont, it is so dark and cold for so long that having a little festive decor helps to keep my spirits up. One family tradition we started this year (started by my MIL when her kids were very little) is a little elf who lives in the knotholes of trees called Gerald Bickle. He visits every so often and leaves little presents (a few m&m’s, a cool acorn, a treat for the dog) in a handed down crocheted bag that hangs on the tree. He came for the first time last night!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Gerald Bickle! So cute!

  • Reply Madeleine December 9, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    we tend to keep things relatively simple at our home, opting for a small tree with lights and a handful of favorite ornaments. One of my favorite traditions, however, is our Christmas dinner. My mother is French and has always done a meat fondue (cheese fondue for those who don’t eat meat). It’s a simple meal really, just salad, crusty baguettes and of course the meat for fondue pot (and wine!). It’s a leisurely meal that often lasts hours… So thankful my own little family enjoys it as much as I do 🙂

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      LOVE! Such fond fondue (!) memories of my own childhood!

  • Reply Diana December 9, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Long-time lurker here – I just wanted to say that my family has been lighting candles on our Christmas tree ever since I was a child (well, really, ever since my father was a child growing up in Switzerland, where it’s a common tradition). It’s absolutely gorgeous and magical and do-able, but you need to be very careful. We normally cut down the tree a few days before (no earlier than the 20th) to make sure it’s very fresh. Since your tree is up now, you might want to wait until next year! Or perhaps you could thoroughly mist the tree if you don’t want to wait before lighting the candles to make sure the branches are damp. Our other precautions are to make sure that we have an up to date fire extinguisher nearby (along with somebody who has recently reviewed the instructions on how to use it), along with a full bucket of water. Those two things are both assigned to a different adult so it’s clear who should take action if anything happens. That said, we’ve never had to use any of these precautions – but do a little youtube-ing of Christmas trees going up in flames and you’ll probably say better safe than sorry 🙂 A Christmas tree on the dry side can burn very quickly.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 12:30 pm

      Wonderful! Thanks so much for the tips!

      • Reply Maddy December 9, 2015 at 6:08 pm

        Also a longtime lurker – thanks to Diana for these tips as I didn’t want to be negative, but I’ve heard a family friend’s story of a monitored tree getting out of control . Stay safe Erin, and this seems like a lovely tradition!

        • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2015 at 7:07 am

          Not to worry! We don’t plan on doing anything crazy!

  • Reply Francesca December 9, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    6 years ago when we moved into our house we started a new tradition. My mother and father stay over Christmas Eve. We wake up Christmas morning to coffee and some type of baked treat (love to try new recipes). Then my mother begins to cook her tomato sauce on the stove in preparation for our early dinner consisting of meatballs, homemade pasta and braciole. Ending with cannolis, filled with her own special cream, and espresso. We have narrowed our gifts down to stocking stuffers. After years of couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over, I now enjoy Christmas

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      That sounds so wonderful!

      • Reply Loretta December 10, 2015 at 6:57 am

        This sounds like the most perfect Christmas. I’m at the other end of it – now we are the parents making the sauce.

  • Reply Melanie December 9, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    I’m still debating whether to put up a tree or not in my tiny studio condo. There isn’t much room for one so I would have to give up my desk for the next month or so… Thanks though for the inspiration to keep it simple yet functional! =)

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 1:09 pm

      This was always my debate in our truly tiny apartment! We went a few Christmases with lots of swags but without a tree!

  • Reply Jess | CityComfortsDC December 9, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    I love setting up the Christmas tree and decorations. It was one of my favorite things to do as a kid. Now that I’m older and live in an apartment I had to downsize those expectations. I have a little tree I decorate that sits on my counter and it’s just what I need 🙂 Of course one day I’ll be going ALL out once again.


  • Reply Heather December 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm

    I adore this. It reminds me of how much I loved the American Girl Kirsten Christmas book. I also wanted a candle-lit tree when I was little. I’d like to make the candles with my daughter. Thank you for linking to your tutorial!

  • Reply Kim December 9, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    We live in an area where the houses are all wood cottages and despite this a lot of people still use real candles on their trees. A neighbour told me that they actually think it is safer because it means that you stay near the tree when they are on and unlike with an electrical set of lights your not ever tempted to leave them on which could cause fires.. We currently have real candles for our Advent wreath. Not sure if it is as common a tradition in North America but my family is originally from Germany and I’ve kept the tradition going with my own little family. You have 4 candles and one gets lit every Sunday before Christmas. It works well as a way for kids to count down the weeks till the big day.

  • Reply Erin December 9, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Though not raised particularly religiously, I went to Jewish preschool as a child in Chicago. During my year there (surely in the weeks leading up to Hanukkah) we made our own menorahs out of 2x4s that we stained colorfully and then glued nuts (of the hardware variety) on to hold the candles (using 2 nuts for the shamas – the taller one). 24 years later, it is still the menorah I use here in Brooklyn. Though the staining has faded, the nuts have had to be re-glued periodically, and the wood has suffered a few burn marks, it is simple, sturdy, and has stood the test of time.

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      So great!

  • Reply Renee December 9, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    I’m a Christmas gal. Growing up the house was always decked to the nines and the tree was a live one we picked out as a family, cut down, drove home, and then trimmed again bc it was invariably too tall.
    I’ve already compromised and we have a lovely artificial pre lit tree. It’s perfect. I’m hoping to get some festive and yummy smelling wreaths or garlands, but no one is selling them nearby so far.
    This is the first year as a family of three! But I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself to Do.All.The.Things and remind myself that traditions grow with time.

  • Reply Ashley December 9, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    How special.. I love that you just posted this. I am pregnant with my first child and thinking nearly constantly about how different this time of year will be come next year. The name we are giving the baby, if it’s a girl, was my Nana’s middle name, and given to her after her mother’s best friend. They were a tight knit German community, living in Elizabeth, NJ during the early 1920’s. My Nana always told us how her “Tante” was pure magic to her, at Christmas, “she even had real candles on her tree” … Needless to say I am clicking that link you shared so I can grab some holders for my tree. Merry merry. x

  • Reply Stephanie December 9, 2015 at 7:20 pm

    We have a wee space I am starting to get decorated for Christmas and I love these posts! I was wondering what you used as a Christmas tree stand for your mini tree?

  • Reply Karin December 9, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    I come from a long family tradition of homemade tree decorations: crocheted santas from my grandmother, laminated Christmas stamps from my parents, and this year I am beginning the tradition of a homemade felt, sequined and embroidered ornament for our newest family member each year (inspired by this: Squishy (not fragile!), light-weight, easy to store, and easy to make.

    • Reply Ashley December 10, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Karin, thank you for sharing! Those are adorable… next year!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2015 at 1:12 pm

      So sweet!

  • Reply Miina December 10, 2015 at 3:16 am

    I’ve always been in ‘minimal Christmas ornaments’ camp and as I’ve lived my whole grownup life in tiny apartments, there’s never been a tree. Big branches, sure, but even a small tree is too much for me. It’s more about green needles and smell anyway, so I leave trees for other folks who have more room 🙂
    Same with decorations. Years ago I had a hankering for red glass balls, so I spent days with my bf hunting them down as proper ornaments were scarce those days (post-Soviet country). Finally found a box of four and that has been our Christmas decorations ever since. Big green branch, couple of red glass balls hanging from it, few candles and plate of sweet-smelling fresh-baked gingerbread… bliss <3

    Another story is when I lived with my handicapped father and we had a cat, so tree was out of the question (because, cat). So I bought some very light plastic ornaments, hung them from the chandelier-type overhead light in father's room and put a big heavy crystal vase on the shelf and filled it with ornaments too. Father was happy and so was the cat (because there was something shiny hanging from the ceiling and he spent hours watching it!) and nothing was broken 😀

  • Reply Swissrose December 10, 2015 at 4:10 am

    There is so much anxiety in English-speaking countries about this. Please know that common sense is still (as some commenters mention) alive and kicking in the rest of the world. A candle-lit tree is a very pretty thing indeed and we used to do it, too. The advent of kittens in addition to a toddler meant we stopped doing it for a while and when I later reconsidered, the fact that we live in a historic house from 1770 means I decided against it; we did without and recently added some white twinkle lights, instead. I always have large candles burning on the table, anyway, at this time of year.
    Also, very full-branched Christmas trees have become ubiquitous – the old simple spruce that was standard for years left plenty of space between the narrow branches for burning candles safely. In addition, and perhaps crucial, in the countries where we use candles, the tree is not brought into the house until the 24th December (and leaves on January 6th) so it is fresh and damp, even more so where there is no central heating! This is also the reason that I no longer have a green Advent wreath – within a week or two of the four week period of Advent, the wreath is so dry that at least twice, mine has caught fire… not that it burnt my house down or anything! But there are a couple of cases of that each winter in this country. I have become creative with alternatives!

    A tradition here in northern Switzerland is that apart from an Advent wreath, there is always a large bowl of mandarines/clementines, foil-wrapped chocolates and whole peanuts to shell during December – St. Nicholas brings them, along with gingerbread, on Dec. 6th and it takes all month to finish them 🙂

    Incidentally, don’t pay too much for the “old” traditional German candleholders – they are not rare and still sold very cheaply in packs of 10 (even on amazon), exactly the same as the ones as these (like my great-grandmother had)… and the right-sized candles in all qualities from cheap to beeswax, too!!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2015 at 7:04 am

      Lovely, lovely. In thinking more about tree safety, I’m thinking it might be fun to actually light the candles in the beginning of December (December 8 sounds perfect!) and then roll a new set to light on the following year! That way we still have all the merriment and less chance of a tree up in flames come Christmas!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2015 at 7:06 am

      And yes! The candle holders were very very affordable! (And the beeswax, too!) (Next up: filling a bowl with clementines and chocolates and nuts!)

  • Reply jiturka December 10, 2015 at 4:31 am

    These Christmas will be the first I’ll spend together with my dearest in our new apartment. It’s not that small (cca 650 sq ft) and we are soooo looking forward to our tree! We are going to pick one at a market from local forest this weekend 🙂 We bought a few decorations we really liked and I’ve drilled some pine cones to hang on the tree. Also we will have lights and some froebel stars (maybe I could make one big for the tree top?) We will spend Christmas days together visiting parents and grandparents, but still, it will stand there in our living room, looking beautiful and smelling like nature for two weeks as we anticipate the “main events” 🙂

  • Reply Stacie December 10, 2015 at 8:02 am

    We’re the same way, keeping our Christmas decor in one small box. Because of this, we have forgone Christmas stockings, and opted for something closer to the root of the tradition. Each year every member of my little family gets one new pair of high quality socks, which we fill with goodies for Christmas and then wear the rest of the year. This way, we get something functional and don’t have to store bulky stockings for 11 months out of the year!

    • Reply Erin Boyle December 10, 2015 at 8:08 am

      I LOVE this. Might need to riff on this in our house!

  • Reply jenn December 10, 2015 at 9:49 am

    I’ve had the same rule ever since my husband and I moved into a 450 SF apartment in Jersey City 4 years ago: whatever doesn’t fit into the Roomba box doesn’t deserve to be saved! I know a lot of people keep storage units for sentimental things like Christmas decorations and grandmother’s fine china, but there is NOTHING in my life that is worth $100/month or $1200/year that needs to be kept for sentimental reasons. if there’s something so special, I can find a place in my home for it! …sentimental in our minds are the photos which are kept on increasingly smaller devices 🙂

  • Reply Abby December 10, 2015 at 11:54 am

    My husband and I always go for a wintry walk at the beginning of December and we buy one new ornament for the other person. We now have this lovely collection of quirky ornaments that fill out our tabletop tree (someday a full one, when we graduate from apartment living!) – a walrus, a fox, a green bird that reminds my husband of his favorite TV show. We travel for the actual holidays, but this tradition is just for us, and we love it.

  • Reply Weird Workaholic December 10, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    I think the tree looks pretty! How do you keep the candles from falling over? I don’t really have any Christmas traditions, though I have been tempted to buy a small wreath or a poinsettia for my place.

  • Reply Tina Philips December 12, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Nice tree. I have never tried placing candles though and i may never will. I go for the usual classic Christmas tree trimmings and just change themes yearly. I once tried asking the kids to make ornaments from whatever they can think of, it came out good, I’m thinking of doing that again.

  • Reply Jennie-Mae December 12, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    We have a really tiny space and I get bummed each year when we can’t fit a tree (or we do it anyway and give up being able to see one another across the room for the holiday). This year we bought four fresh wreaths instead and hung them in our two windows on and both doors. With a candle on each window sill and the smell of pine throughout the space, I think we’ve finally found our small-space solution!

  • Reply whisper December 12, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    Your tree looks lovely.

    I have a tiny place so get a small but tall live tree which sits in a big umbrella holder/vase . I decorate with tiny white lights and all my silver and sparkly earrings. Looks festive and is easy to store.

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